Despite the obvious mission of public libraries, the unmeasured and often unmentioned return-on-investment with regards to them is the effect they have on the quality-of-life of the population which they serve. Individual and group happiness are only recently becoming viewed as economic indicators (see this article in the Guardian of London) though Positive Psychology, the study of happiness and the causes of positive life experiences, has been a growing movement within, at the very least, American psychological research for the last decade (see the Positive Psychology Center’s list of readings). With all the news about depression and stress rates in the United States soaring, it makes sense that a counterbalance is offered. To that, and into the general fracas I am throwing in my unscientific opinion that public libraries have an important role to play in both the physical and mental health of communities.
But what is quality-of-life and how is it determined. Scientists most often study this through qualitative methods, which is to say, analysis of interviews or journals. Another way is to attach beepers or some way of communicating with subjects that tells them to report on their state of being at regular or irregular intervals. That data, whether subjects rate their happiness on some scale, or say a few words about it is then considered and reports are written. For me, however, it is much more a manifold state of being than how we feel at any one moment. When we think about our personal happiness, we remember how we felt when we woke up this morning, whether the drive to work was satisfactory, the fulfilling aspects of work, a fight with the spouse, maybe – all of these elements come together to color our myriad moods. Basically, I believe that as long as we get enough sleep, are well-fed, and have something we feel is useful to do, happiness is just around the corner. It is that extra boost, the time we must fill when we aren’t eating, sleeping, or working where the library fits.
The aspirational rhetoric that has so long defined public libraries as havens of knowledge and self-improvement is not a bad place to point when it comes to how libraries improve quality-of-life. Through this basic level of access to “knowledge,” people can make themselves more useful to society, which is to say, each other. And as I mentioned previously, being useful is a leading cause of happiness. Going further into how libraries improve quality-of-life, we look towards the prevalence of genre fiction in our circulation records. If we simply go by what gets the most check-outs, it is easy to see that many people love filling their time living vicariously through the heroes in romance novels, detective thrillers, and inspirational fiction (think Richard Paul Evans, or Debbie Macomber). Finally, the exploration of identity, whether that is through genealogical research, or exploration of place, is a large part of what local public libraries allow. Through subscriptions to genealogical databases, collections of how-to books, and archives or records and ephemera, libraries preserve the heritage that teaches us who we are. It is no other organization in the world but the public library that brings about these contributions to people’s happiness in quite the same unfettered and obvious way.
To hammer that idea home, we should look at how other people’s happiness affects our everyday lives. Maybe 42-year old lawyer, Jeff, is having a bad morning. His clients are late, the case load is high and nothing is going right. Lunch is boring and the afternoon is no better. After work, however, Jeff remembers that he skimmed an article from the library earlier. A book that he had ordered a few weeks ago had arrived and was waiting for him. Dropping by his local branch, Jeff finds the book and is about to leave when he hears strains of beautiful music coming from the library’s meeting room. Wandering in, he takes a seat in the back of the room and I implore you to answer me this. How can the harried Jeff remain agitated in the face of the relaxing and melancholy dirges delivered by a local string quartet and performed, for free, at the public library. As his breathing evens out and the stresses of the day subside, Jeff decides that his wife hasn’t had flowers in way too long. He looks forward to just-before-bed when he can relax with his long-awaited novel and as the quartet concludes, Jeff joins the rest of the audience in giving them a well-deserved standing ovation.